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Taken from 'Howitt and Fison' by J. G. Frazer, Folklore, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun. 30, 1909), pp. 144-180 

ANTHROPOLOGY in general, and Australian anthropology in particular, has lately suffered two very heavy losses by the deaths of the Rev. Lorimer Fison and Dr. A.W. Howitt, two old friends and colleagues, who passed away at an interval of a few months, Mr. Fison dying in December, 1907, and Dr. Howitt in March, 1908. To their insight, enthusiasm, and industry we owe the first exact and comprehensive study of the social organisation of the Australian tribes; and the facts which they brought to light, together with the explanations which they gave of them, have not only contributed to a better under- standing of the Australian aborigines, but have shed much light on the early history of institutions in general, and especially of marriage.

... See here for the section about Fison ... 

[Please note that in the original the footnote numbers were different

Alfred William Howitt was born at Nottingham in England in 1830. [1] His parents were William and Mary Howitt, the well-known and popular writers. The father, a native of the delightful little village of Heanor in Derbyshire, engaged in the business of an apothecary at Notting- ham, but finally devoted himself to literature, pouring out a long series of volumes. Soon after his marriage Mr. Howitt and his wife made a tour on foot to Scotland, a rare, almost unprecedented, undertaking in those days. In 1840, when Alfred was ten years old, the parents went to Heidelberg for the education of their children, and remained about two years in Germany. Afterwards Alfred studied at University College, London. In June, 1852, Mr. Howitt, accompanied by his two sons, Alfred and Charlton, sailed for Australia, ostensibly to visit his brother, Dr. Godfrey Howitt, then settled as a medical man in Melbourne, but perhaps also to see for themselves the new Land of Gold and to partake of its fabulous riches. They reached Melbourne after a three months' voyage, and purchasing a cart and horses journeyed up country to the Ovens gold diggings. After about two years of toilsome digging and wandering in what was then a wild country, William Howitt, with his son Charlton, returned to England in 1854, leaving his other son, Alfred, then twenty-four years of age, behind him at Melbourne. Young Howitt was now not merely an accomplished bush- man, but had begun to turn his keen powers of observation to higher account by studying nature. At first he farmed land at Caulfield, near Melbourne, which belonged to his uncle, Dr. Godfrey Howitt. But the .humdrum life of a farmer was not to his taste, and he betook himself to the more adventurous pursuit of cattle-droving. On one of the journeys which he made to the Murray River for the purpose of bringing down herds of cattle to Melbourne, he chanced to fall in with Lorimer Fison. They met and parted, little thinking how closely associated they were to be in after life.

This was the great era of exploration in Australia. The vast unknown regions of the continent stirred the imagination and raised the hopes of the colonists. Explorer after explorer set out and vanished into the far interior, some of them to return no more. Young Howitt bore his share in these arduous enterprises. It chanced that the explorer Warburton had visited the dreary region of Central Australia about Lake Eyre in an unusually fine season, when water and grass abounded, and accordingly he reported on it in glowing terms. His discoveries excited great interest in Victoria: a committee was formed in Melbourne to open up the country; and in September, 1859, Mr. Howitt, now well known as an able, careful, and fearless bushman, was sent from Adelaide at the head of a small party to spy out what, seen at a distance, appeared to the longing eyes of Australian shepherds and herdsmen a land flowing, or rather about to flow, with milk and honey. The result of Howitt's expedition was to dispel this pastoral dream. He looked for a Paradise, and found a desert. Coming from the forest- clad and snow-capped mountains of Victoria, with their abundant rains and luxuriant vegetation, he found himself in another world. In the distance barren ranges of naked brown rocks and precipices loomed weirdly through the desert haze; and a nearer approach revealed the profound ravines by which these desolate mountains were cleft from side to side. At their feet stretched either wastes of sand across which wind-driven columns of dust stalked like the jinn of the Arabian Nights, or plains so stony that riding at night the explorers could follow their leader by the sparks of fire which his horse's hoofs struck out of the stones at every step in the darkness. By day the atmosphere was at times so clear that the travellers could hardly tell whether objects seen through it were near or far; at other times the mirage worked such fantastic effects on the landscape that they felt as if transported to an enchanted land. "It was an interesting experience in a wonderful country," says Dr. Howitt dryly, in conclusion, "but it was not the kind of country that was wanted." [2]

After his return from this exploring expedition, Mr. Howitt took a post as manager of the Mount Napier cattle station, near Hamilton. But in i860 he was again despatched by the Victorian Government on the task of exploration. This time he went with a party of picked miners to prospect for gold in the rugged, mountainous, trackless, and then almost unknown region of Gippsland, in south-eastern Victoria, where in winter the snow lies for months on the peaks and tablelands, and where in the dense jungle of the valleys the trees grow to heights scarcely equalled on earth. The mission was successful; goldfields were opened on the Crooked, Dargo, and Wentworth Rivers. It was during this expedition that Mr. Howitt first became keenly interested in the eucalyptus trees, to which in after life he paid much attention, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the subject both from the practical and the scientific point of view.

In the year 1860 an ill-fated expedition, equipped at lavish cost and led by Burke and Wills, had started from Melbourne amid the enthusiasm of the citizens to traverse Australia from south to north. When month after month passed and no word came of the explorers, great uneasiness was felt in Victoria, and on June I8th, 1861, it was decided to send out a search party to their relief. Of this party Mr. Howitt was appointed leader. He started on July 14th, and journeyed north to Menindie on the Darling River, then the last outpost of civilisation, if indeed civilisation can be said to be represented by a public-house, a shop, a lock-up, and a knot of bearded men in cabbage-tree hats, who, so far as they did not pass their leisure hours in the contemplative seclusion of the lock-up, devoted them to smoking and lounging in the public-house, discussing the latest "brush with the niggers," and criticising the stores offered for the use of explorers, particularly the dried beef, which they smelt and tasted with the air of connoisseurs.

Leaving these representatives of the higher culture behind, Mr. Howitt and his small party, with their horses and camels, struck westward into the desert. He has described his experiences briefly but graphically. [3] He tells us how, when they came to a river or creek, the camels stubbornly refused to take to the water, but were circumvented by human intelligence; for, having persuaded them to sit down on the bank and then to get up again, Mr. Howitt and his companions suddenly precipitated themselves upon the brutes in an unguarded moment when they were off their balance in the act of rising, and so toppled them bodily into the stream, and hauled them across. After floundering through the water, the camels waded in the deep mud on the other side, drawing their hoofs out of it one after the other with a loud plop like the sound of drawing a gigantic cork out of a Brobdingnagian bottle. Day after day, over ground paved with sharp splinters of flinty stone, through deep dry gorges in the desolate hills, lined with half-dead mulga scrub and studded with great boulders, the explorers and their beasts slowly picked their way, footsore and weary under the burning sun, till coming out on the edge of a bluff they suddenly beheld the great sandy desert of the Cooper's Creek country spread out below and beyond them. Far as the eye could see the sandhills stretched away, ridge beyond ridge, to the horizon, until their outlines were lost in the haze of distance. As he gazed on this dreary landscape from the height, a very different scene, which he had beheld a year before the Gippsland highlands, rose up before the mind of the explorer. Then, as he ascended a mountain summit on the Dargo River, a wonderful far-reaching prospect had burst upon him. For many miles the snowy plains stretched northwards to where, on the horizon, the chain of the Bogong Mountains rose, lustrous in their white mantle of snow, resplendently pure under the cloudless deep blue of the winter sky in the Australian Alps.

Descending from these heights, Mr. Howitt and his men pursued their way, now with labour and difficulty over the most stony wilderness imaginable, now with comparative ease over sandhills or earthy plains, cracked and fissured for want of water in all directions, sometimes bare and brown, sometimes cumbered with the dry stalks of withered plants, which rose higher than a horse and showed how, after heavy rains, the face of these arid deserts would change as by magic into a teeming jungle of vegetation. Thus they journeyed till one day, riding alone, Mr. Howitt perceived some native huts on the further side of a dry waddy, and in the foreground a black man and woman gathering sticks. The woman at once made off towards the huts, but the man stood his ground and gesticulated in great excitement to Mr. Howitt, until on the approach of the traveller he also took to his heels. To regain his party Mr. Howitt rode along the bank of the waddy, and met his native riders, one of whom shouted to him: "Find em whitefella; two fella dead boy and one fella livo." Hastening to the native camp, Mr. Howitt found the last survivor of the missing explorers, John King, sitting in one of the huts. He was a melancholy object, hardly to be distinguished as a civilised man by the tatters that still hung on his weak, emaciated frame. At first he was too much overcome by emotion to speak distinctly; but in time he recovered sufficiently to tell his tale of suffering and disaster. It was the 25th of September when the rescuers and the rescued turned their faces homeward; on November 28th, 1861, they all reached Melbourne in safety.

A few days later the intrepid and indefatigable explorer started again for the deserts of the far interior to explore the region of Cooper's Creek and to bring back the bones of the men who had fallen martyrs to science, that they might be buried with public honours in the city. This task also Mr. Howitt accomplished successfully. He brought back the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne on December 28th, 1862. For these services Mr. Howitt was appointed Police Magistrate and Warden of the Goldfields in Gippsland, a post which he filled with conspicuous success during twenty-six years of incessant work from 1863 to 1889.

It was during the expedition of 1862, when he was no longer under the necessity of pushing on from day to day lest he should come too late to rescue the survivors, that Mr. Howitt found leisure to study the natives with whom he came into contact; and it was then that he gained his first insight into the social organisation of the Dieri tribe, who roamed the wilderness of Cooper's Creek and Lake Eyre. With the help of a native interpreter of the Narrinyeri tribe Mr. Howitt before long was able to make himself understood sufficiently for ordinary purposes. On this expedition also he saw for himself the wonderful transformation which after heavy rains converts the Central Australian desert into a jungle. Where an earlier explorer had beheld nothing but a dark brown wilderness without a blade of grass, Mr. Howitt rode for many days through a land of lakes, lagoons, and water-channels, with wide stretches of plains covered by a rank growth of tall plants, higher than a man on horseback, looking like vast beds of white hollyhocks in full bloom, and his horses revelled in the luxuriant herbage. So sharp was the line of demarcation between the dry and the watered land that on a steep bank, at the point to which the flood had risen, the traveller stood with the hind feet of his horse in the desert and his front feet on the teeming vegetation.

The district of Gippsland which was committed to Mr. Howitt's care extended from Wilson's Promontory to Cape Howe. It was then a wild, almost unexplored country, and every year Mr. Howitt travelled thousands of miles through it on horseback; and as he rode among the mountains and through the great forests he learned to study minutely both the rocks and the trees. His capacity for work was extraordinary; much of his reading was done in the saddle. The botanical and geological observations which he made on these journeys bore fruit in a series of memoirs which he contributed to the publications of his official Department, the Royal Society of Victoria, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and occasionally to the Quarterly Journal of Geological Science. Among these memoirs may be particularly mentioned his treatise, "The Eucalypti of Gippsland," which appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria for 1889.

Still more important for his life-work was the acquaintance which on these journeys he made with the native inhabitants, the Kurnai of Gippsland. He gained their confidence, and, being regarded by them as a fully initiated member of the tribe, was able to acquire an intimate knowledge of their old customs and beliefs before they had wholly passed into oblivion; for, though the Kurnai had long been at peace with the whites, they were even then fast dying out. Thus, when on his return from Fiji in 1871 Mr. Fison appealed through the newspapers for information on the Australian aborigines, Mr. Howitt was well qualified by his knowledge both of the Central and of the South-eastern tribes, the Dieri as well as the Kurnai, to respond to the appeal. He did so, and, as we have seen, the two men became fast friends and colleagues in the work of investigation, laying together the foundations of Australian ethnology. In these researches the observation and collection of facts fell mainly to the share of Mr. Howitt, his colleague's professional duties and situation leaving him fewer opportunities of personal contact with the natives. On the other hand, the theoretical interpretation of the facts was at first largely the work of Mr. Fison, though in later years Mr. Howitt distinguished himself certainly not less in this department of anthropology. After the two friends had published in Kamilaroi and Kurnai (Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane, 1880) the joint results of their enquiries and reflections, Mr. Howitt pursued his investigations for the most part alone; indeed, even before the publication of that book, Mr. Fison had returned to Fiji. Some of the results of these investigations were given to the world in a long series of valuable memoirs on the Australian tribes, which appeared for the most part in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland from the year 1883 to the year 1907. They opened with a joint paper by Messrs. Fison and Howitt, called "From Mother-Right to Father-Right," and they closed with one by Dr. Howitt on "Australian Group-Relationships." In this series an early one, entitled "Notes on the Australian Class Systems," read in the author's absence before the Anthropological Institute in London on December 12th, 1882, [4] is second to none in importance for its clear enunciation of the principles underlying the seemingly complex marriage system of the Australian aborigines. Strangely enough, when many years later he came to write his great work The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Dr. Howitt had forgotten his own enunciation of these important principles; for it was only after a conversation with me at my house in Cambridge, in the summer of 1904, that he inserted a statement of them in his book, which was then going through the press. With characteristic candour he accepted the principles as true and assigned the discovery of them to me.[5] It was not till January 2nd, 1908, that I detected our joint mistake; for on that day, reading again Dr. Howitt's old paper "Notes on the Australian Class Systems," I found that in it he had clearly and concisely stated the principles in question many years before I had ever given a thought to the subject. As I had certainly studied and cited that paper' [6] long before, I make no doubt that I had learned the principles from it, though like the author of the paper I had forgotten the source of my information. I at once wrote to Dr. Howitt to do him the justice which he had failed to do himself. [7] Though I did not know it, there was no time to be lost, for when I was writing he had already been struck down by mortal sickness. Happily my letter reached him in life, and he sent me through his daughter a last message, a kind and generous message, in reply.

Another paper which deserves to be specially mentioned is a later one, entitled "Further Notes on the Australian Class Systems," [8] in which Mr. Howitt acutely pointed out how among the Australian savages a certain social advance has been made in the better watered and more fertile districts, particularly on the coast, while the more archaic forms of society linger in the dry and desert interior, from which he inferred that in Australia the first steps towards civilisation have been conditioned by a heavier rainfall and a consequent greater abundance of food. This important principle was afterwards fully recognised and clearly stated by him in The Native Tribes of South-East Australia. Indeed he justly attached so much weight to it that he wished to illustrate it in his book by a map of the rainfall in Australia, which would show how in that continent progress in culture varies directly with the rainfall. For that purpose he applied to the meteorological authorities in London, but for lack of the necessary data, if I remember aright, the project was abandoned. Amongst his anthropological papers published elsewhere may be mentioned his paper, "Australian Group-Relationships," published in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute for 1883; another "On the Organisation of Australian Tribes," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria for 1889; and some papers published in Folk-Lore for the years 1906 and 1907. In 1889 Mr. Howitt became Secretary for Mines in Victoria, and in 1896 he was appointed Audit Commissioner. Besides these public duties he sat on other Government commissions and boards of enquiry, for which his wide experience, ripe knowledge, and sound judgment pre-eminently fitted him. Yet we cannot but regret that he devoted so much time and energy to business, which others perhaps might have performed as efficiently, to the neglect of scientific researches, for which few were so well qualified as he. However, he continued to give his leisure hours to study, and looked forward to the time when he should be able to dedicate the rest of his life, without distraction, to his favourite pursuits. The longed- for time came, or seemed to come, at last when he retired from the public service of Victoria in 1901. His retirement was unnoticed by the public and his official colleagues, who perhaps were hardly aware of the honour they had enjoyed in being associated with such a man. He now settled down to the quiet life of a student in his picturesque home at Metung, on the shore of the Gippsland Lakes. Gippsland is a pleasant and a beautiful country, with a climate in the lowlands like that of Italy. The orange grows well there; the mountains are high and snow- capped for months together; the rivers wind through deep glens thickly mantled in living green; the gum-trees in the forest are the tallest trees in the world; and the great tree-ferns give to the woods an aspect of tropical luxuriance. It is Australia Felix, the Happy Land of the South. But Mr. Howitt's seclusion in this earthly Paradise was not to be undisturbed. The old serpent, in the guise of public business, stole into his Eden. He was invited and consented to act as chairman of a Royal Commission on the coalfields of Victoria, and soon after he had discharged this function he was appointed a member of the Commission to which was entrusted the onerous and difficult task of choosing a site for the future federal capital of Australia. These duties involved much travelling, as well as much critical weighing of evidence, but in spite of all distractions he made steady progress with the revision and completion of his life-long researches in Australian ethnology. By the summer of 1904 the work was so far advanced that he came to England with his daughter, Miss Mary E.B. Howitt, to see his book through the press. It was then that I had the privilege of making his personal acquaintance. I hastened to greet him in London soon after his arrival, and learned to esteem as a man one whom I had long respected as an anthropologist. Later in the summer, in the month of August, he and his daughter did me the honour of staying for some days in my house at Cambridge to attend the meeting of the British Association. He read a paper "On Group Marriage in Australian Tribes" at the meeting, and the University of Cambridge showed its high appreciation of his services to science by conferring the honorary degree of Doctor of Science upon him. I shall always cherish the memory of his visit and of the conversations we had on the topics in which we both took a deep interest. Later in the autumn he left England for Australia, spending some time happily in Italy by the way, and there meeting once more a sister whom he had not seen for more than fifty years. Before the end of the same year (1904) the book by which he will always be chiefly remembered was published under the title of The Native Tribes of South-East Australia. The value and importance of the work are too well known to call for any detailed appreciation or eulogium. It must always remain an anthropological classic and the standard authority on the subject with which it deals.

Much as he had enjoyed his travels in Europe and his visit, after so many years, to the scenes of his youth, he was glad to return to his Australian home; and he now threw himself with the energy and enthusiasm of youth into his botanical and petrological studies, which the composition of his great book on the Australian natives had compelled him for a time to intermit. He cherished the hope of writing a comprehensive work on the eucalyptus trees of Victoria, and another on the rocks of Gippsland, which no man knew so well as he. But these hopes were not destined to be fulfilled. During the last years of his life he was much concerned by certain misapprehensions and misrepresentations, as he conceived them to be, of facts relating to the Australian aborigines to which currency had been given both in Australia and Europe, and he took great pains to correct these misapprehensions and to give wide publicity to his corrections. These things absorbed some of his time, and in 1907 he was called on to preside over the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at Adelaide. In his Presidential Address he dealt with his reminiscences of exploration in Central Australia, particularly his expeditions to rescue the lost explorers and to bring back their remains. In previous years he had presided over the Ethnological and Geographical Sections of the Association, and had been awarded the first Mueller medal for his many distinguished contributions to Australian science. In the previous year (1906) a Companionship of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.), had been conferred upon him in recognition of his services to the State as well as to learning.

So, full of years and honours, he returned to his home at Metung in January, 1907. The even tenour of his studious life was pleasantly diversified by one or two visits to Melbourne and by an expedition into the mountains of the Omeo district to complete his observations on the rocks. The seventy-eight years of his long life sat very lightly on him; indeed so youthful was he in mind, so keen in intellect, so exuberant in energy that his friends anticipated with confidence for him yet many years of useful activity. But it was not to be. On the last day of the year, 1907, only two days after the death of his old friend Mr. Fison, he was suddenly struck down by hemorrhage of the stomach. At first the doctors held out every hope of a complete recovery, but they soon saw that the case was beyond their power and that Dr. Howitt's days were numbered. In order that he might be nearer to medical aid, they moved him from his own house at Metung to his son's house at Bairnsdale. For seventy years of an active and adventurous life Dr. Howitt had never been confined to his bed for a single day; but, when the last sickness came, no one could have been more patient and uncomplaining, and he received with steadfast courage the announcement of the doctors that they could do nothing for him. The remaining weeks of his life were passed almost constantly in the sleep of weakness and exhaustion, but with very little acute pain. His thoughts to the last were occupied with his work; his last conscious effort was to dictate from his death-bed a message to anthropologists impressing on them the importance of caution in accepting information drawn from the Australian tribes in their present state of decay. The message, after a delay caused by miscarriage in the post, was published in the Revue des Etudes Ethnographiques et Sociologiques for December, 19o8. On March the 7th, 1908, Dr. Howitt passed away. His beloved wife, to whose memory he dedicated his great book, had died six years before him. She was a daughter of Judge Boothby of Adelaide, and left him with two sons and three daughters, one of whom, Miss Mary E. B. Howitt, was his faithful helper in his anthropological labours, and nursed him to the end.

In personal appearance, and to some extent also in manner, no two men could well differ more widely than the fast friends, Fison and Howitt. Fison was a big burly man, powerfully and heavily built, with a jolly good-humoured face, a bluff almost jovial manner, tender-hearted but bubbling over with humour, on which the remembrance of his clerical profession, as well as his deep, absolutely unaffected piety, perhaps imposed a certain restraint. Howitt was a small man, with a spare but well-knit frame, light, active, and inured to exposure and fatigue. His features were keen and finely cut, with deep-set eyes and a penetrating look. It was a hawk's face; and his brisk alert manner and quick movements added to the resemblance. I remember that, when he stayed in my house at Cambridge, he used not to walk but to run upstairs like a boy, though he was then in his seventy-fifth year. When the two old men met for the last time, "Howitt," said Fison, "do you never feel the infirmities of old age?" "What are they?" he answered. While habitually graver than his friend, Howitt was by no means devoid of dry humour, and could tell old stories of the bush with admirable point and zest. On the subject which perhaps occupied their thoughts more than any other, the social organisation of the Australian tribes, the two men were in fundamental agreement. On questions much deeper and more perplexing their views differed widely, but the difference never affected their friendship, as indeed such differences need never affect the friendship of honest men alike animated, as these two unquestionably were, by a single-hearted disinterested devotion to truth. They loved each other like brothers in life, and they were not long divided in death. Such were Fison and Howitt as I knew them in their writings and in the flesh. I am proud to have known two such men, and to have numbered them among my friends.

In the history of the science of man the names of Howitt and Fison will be inseparably associated. It will be for others in future, better informed and perhaps more impartial than I am, to pronounce a final judgment on the value of their work as a whole. Here I will single out only what appears to me to be their most important contribution to knowledge--that is, the light which they have thrown on the systems of marriage and relationship prevalent among the Australian aborigines. These systems are of extraordinary interest not merely in themselves, but in their bearing on the history of marriage in general. For the systems agree fundamentally with those practised by races in many other parts of the world; and, though they present peculiarities which have not been discovered elsewhere, these peculiarities themselves appear to be only special developments of the general principles which underlie all the systems in question. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Australian systems is their apparent complexity combined with a logical, almost mathematical precision and regularity. Enquirers have long been divided on the question whether this feature is the result of accident or design; whether the Australian aborigines have stumbled on their systems by chance, or have gradually evolved them by conscious reflection and deliberate effort. Most of those who know these savages only by reading about them in books appear to be of opinion that their social systems, for all their appearance of complexity combined with exactness and regularity, are the result of accident, that they grew up through a fortuitous train of circumstances without any prevision or purpose on the part of those who practise them. On the other hand, most of those who are best acquainted with the Australian aborigines, not through books but through personal intercourse, appear to be of opinion that their social systems are the fruit of design, and that they were deliberately devised to ensure the results which they unquestionably achieve. The latter was the opinion of Fison and Howitt, and it is the opinion of their distinguished friends and disciples, Spencer and Gillen.

In the broadest outline, omitting details and minor differences, an aboriginal Australian tribe is divided into two, four, or eight exogamous classes; that is, it consists of two, four, or eight divisions with a rule that no man may marry a woman of his own division, but may only take a wife from a single one of the other divisions. Thus, if the tribe is divided into two exogamous classes, a man is forbidden to choose his wife from among, roughly speaking, one-half of all the women of the tribe; if the tribe is divided into four exogamous classes, then three-fourths of the women are forbidden to him; and if the tribe is divided into eight exogamous classes, then no less than seven-eighths of the women of the tribe are forbidden to him. So strictly are these rules enforced that in the old days breaches of them were commonly punished by putting both the culprits to death.

With regard to descent, when a tribe is divided into two exogamous classes, the children are always born into the class either of their father or of their mother, the custom in this respect varying in different tribes; for in some tribes the children always belong to their father's class, and in others they always belong to their mother's. When a tribe is divided into four or eight exogamous classes, the children are born into the class neither of their father nor of their mother, but always into another class, which is, however, determined for them without variation by the particular classes to which their parents belong.

It will hardly be denied that these systems, particularly the rule of the four-class or eight-class organisation, that children can never belong to the class either of their father or of their mother, have at least a superficial appearance of being artificial; and the inference that they must have been deliberately devised, not created by a series of accidents, that they are a product of reason, not of chance, is confirmed by a closer examination. For it can easily be shown that the effect of dividing a tribe into two exogamous classes is to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters; that the effect of dividing a tribe into four exogamous classes, with the characteristic rule of descent, is to prevent the marriage of parents with children; [9] and that the effect of dividing a tribe into eight exogamous classes, with the characteristic rule of descent, is to prevent a man's children from marrying his sister's children--that is, its effect is to prevent the marriage of some, though not all, of those whom we call first cousins. As all the marriages which these rules actually bar are abhorred by the Australian aborigines, it is natural to infer that the effect which the rules produce is the effect which they were designed to produce; in other words, that the rules, which have certainly the appearance of being artificial, are really so, having been devised to accomplish the very object which in point of fact they do very successfully achieve. If this inference is sound, the deliberate institu- tion of the Australian marriage system may be taken as proved.

The objections raised to this view by those who know the Australian natives only or mainly through books resolve themselves, roughly speaking, into two. First, they deny that the Australian savages are capable of thinking out a marriage system at once so complex and so regular. But this objection is outweighed by the testimony of those who best know the Australian aborigines personally, such as Dr. Howitt and Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, [10] in whose opinion the natives are quite capable both of conceiving and of executing the system in question. That the natives understand their complex system perfectly, and work it smoothly and regularly, is certain. Why, then, should they not have originated it? Would they be more likely to understand and work it, as they do, without any serious hitch, if they had drifted into it by accident than if they had thought it out for themselves?

The other objection often brought against the theory of the deliberate institution of the Australian marriage system is that, if the system was designed to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters, of parents with children, and of a man's children with his sister's children, it greatly over- shoots the mark by simultaneously barring the marriage of many other persons who stand in none of these relationships to each other. This objection implies a total misconception of the Australian system of relationships. For, according to the classificatory system of relationship, which is universally prevalent among the Australian aborigines, the terms father, mother, brother, sister, son, and daughter are employed in a far wider signification than with us, so as to include many persons who are no blood relations at all to the speaker. The system sorts out the whole community into classes or groups, which are variously designated by these terms; the relationship which it recognises between members of a class or group is social, not consanguineous; and though each class or group includes the blood relations whom we designate by the corresponding terms, it includes many more, and for social purposes a man does not distinguish between the members of a group who are related to him by blood from those members of the group who are not so related to him. Each man has thus many "fathers" who never begat him, and many "mothers " who never bore him; he calls many men and women his "brothers" and "sisters" with whom he has not a drop of blood in common; and he bestows the names of "sons" and "daughters" on many boys and girls, many men and women, who are not his offspring.

Now, "if we assume, as we have every right to do, that the founders of exogamy in Australia recognised the classificatory system of relationship, and the classificatory system of relationship only, we shall at once perceive that what they intended to prevent was not merely the marriage of a man with his sister, his mother, or his daughter in the physical sense in which we use these terms; their aim was to prevent his marriage with his sister, his mother, and his daughter in the classificatory sense of these terms ; that is, they intended to place bars to marriage not between individuals merely but between the whole groups of persons who designated their group, not their individual, relation- ship, their social, not their consanguineous, ties, by the names of father and mother, brother and sister, and son and daughter. In this intention the founders of exogamy succeeded perfectly. In the completest form of the system, the division of the tribe into eight exogamous classes, they barred the marriage of group brothers with group sisters, of group fathers with group daughters, of group mothers with group sons, and of the sons of group brothers with the daughters of group sisters. Thus the dichotomy of an Australian tribe in its completest form, namely, in the eight-class organisation, was not a clumsy expedient which overshot its mark by separating from each other many persons whom the authors of it had no intention of separating; it was a device admirably adapted to effect just what its inventors intended, neither more nor less."

"But while there are strong grounds for thinking that the system of exogamy has been deliberately devised and instituted for the purpose of effecting just what it does effect, it would doubtless be a mistake to suppose that its most complex form, the eight-class system, was struck out at a single blow. All the evidence and probability are in favour of the view that the system originated in a simple division of the community into two exogamous classes only; that, when this was found insufficient to bar marriages which the natives regarded as objectionable, each of the two classes was again subdivided into two, making four exogamous classes in all; and, finally, that, when four exogamous classes still proved to be insufficient for the purpose, each of them was again subdivided into two, making eight exogamous classes in all. Thus from a simple beginning the Australians appear to have advanced step by step to the complex system of eight exogamous classes, the process being one of successive bisections or dichotomies. The first bisection, as I have said, prevented the marriage of brothers with sisters; the second bisection, combined with the characteristic rule of descent, prevented the marriage of parents with children; and the third bisection, combined with the characteristic rule of descent, prevented the marriage of a man's children with the children of his sister; in other words, it prevented the marriage of some, but not all, of those whom we call first cousins." [11]

But, if the system was devised to prevent the marriage of brothers with sisters, of parents with children, and of a man's children with his sister's children, it seems to follow that such marriages were common before the system was instituted to check them; in short, it implies that exogamy was a deliberate prohibition of a former unrestricted practice of incest, which allowed the nearest relations to have sexual intercourse with each other. This implication is confirmed, as Messrs. Howitt, Spencer, and Gillen have shown for the tribes of Central Australia, by customs which can be reasonably interpreted only as a system of group marriage or as survivals of a still wider practice of sexual communism. And, as the custom of exogamy combined with the classificatory system of relationship is not confined to Australia, but is found among many races in many parts of the world, it becomes probable that a large part, if not the whole, of the human race have at one time, not necessarily the earliest, in their history permitted the practice of incest, that is, of the closest interbreeding, and that, having perceived or imagined the practice to be injurious, they deliberately for- bade and took effective measures to prevent it.

That is the great generalisation reached by L.H. Morgan from his discovery of the classificatory system of relationship. It is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Fison and Howitt first, and of their disciples Spencer and Gillen afterwards, that their researches among the Australian tribes have not only lent powerful support to the conclusions of the American ethnologist, but have given us an insight into the machinery by which the great social reform was effected. The machinery was, indeed, simple; it consisted merely in the bisection, whether single or repeated, of the whole community into two exogamous classes. In Australia the application of this machinery to effect this purpose is seen more clearly than in any other part of the world, because in many Australian tribes the bisection has been repeated oftener than anywhere else, or, rather, oftener than it is known to have been repeated elsewhere; for it is possible that among other races of men similar secondary and tertiary subdivisions have occurred, though they seem now to have vanished without leaving a trace. The oldest social stratification, so to say, of mankind is better preserved among the Australian aborigines than among any other people of whom we have knowledge. To have obtained an accurate record of that stratification before it finally disappeared, as it must very soon do, is an achievement of the highest importance for the understanding of human history; and we owe the possession of that record, now safely deposited in the archives of science, mainly to the exertions and the influence of Howitt and Fison.



[1] For most of the facts in the following sketch of Dr. Howitt's life I am indebted to an obituarynotice of him by his friend and disciple, Professor W. Baldwin Spencer, which appeared in The Victorian Naturalist , vol. xxiv., No. 12, April, 1908. I have also made some use of an obituary notice published in the Australian paper, The Argus, Monday, March 9th, 1908, p. 7. My notice of Dr. Howitt's explorations in Central Australia is taken mainly from his own reminiscences, as these have been graphically recorded by him in the address which he delivered as President of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at Adelaide in 1907. The account of his last illness and death is derived from letters written to me by his daughter Miss Mary E.B. Howitt.

[2] Report of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Adelaide, 1907, Inaugural Address by A.W. Howitt, C.M.G., D.Sc., F.G.S., President, pp. 9-11 (separate reprint).

[3] In his Inaugural Address to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Adelaide, 1907, pp. 20 et seq.

[4] The journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xii. (1883), pp. 496-510.

[5] The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 284-286.

[6] In my Totemism, published in 1887.

[7] At the same time I wrote to the same effect a letter to Man, and my letter was published in that journal, February, 1908, pp. 21 et seq. I believe I wrote at the same time an identical letter to The Athenaeum, but on a cursory search through a file of that periodical I have not been able to find the letter.

[8] The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xviii. (1889), pp. 31-70.

[9] That the division into two and four exogamous classes, with the peculiar rule of descent in the four-class system, not only produced these effects but was intended to produce them, was clearly stated by Dr. Howitt in his paper "Notes on the Australian Class Systems," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xii. (1883), pp. 496 et seq. [Frazer also refers the reader back in the article]

[10] A.W. Howitt, "Notes on the Australian Class Systems," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xii. (1883), pp. 496 et seq.; id., The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, pp. 89 et seq., 140, 143; Spencer and Gillen, Native Tribes of Central Australia, pp. 12-15, 69; id., Northern Tribes of Central Australia, pp. 123 et seq.; id., "Some Remarks on Totemism as applied to Australian Tribes," The Journal of the Anthropological Institute etc., vol. xxviii. (1899), p. 278; Baldwin Spencer, "Totemism in Australia," in Transactions of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Dunedin, 1904, pp. 419 et seq. 

[11] I quote this passage from a forthcoming work of mine, Totemism and Exogamy, to which I would refer my readers for a fuller explanation and discussion of a somewhat intricate subject.

Transcribed by AP August 2013


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